One Month Challenge: How To Change Your Chinese Learning Habits in 30 Days

challenge-acceptedLacking motivation? Keep putting off that Chinese study? Haven’t learnt a new character since you bought that World of Warcraft expansion pack?

One month challenges are for you.

I first heard about them online a couple of months ago, I think in a psychology journal (I can’t remember which, sorry!). Anyway, I read that habits are formed in around 30 days (less in some people), and that by setting yourself a goal of doing a specific task every day for a month, we are likely to assimilate it into our life as one of our everyday activities.
So, armed with this newfound knowledge, I set out precisely one month ago on my first One Month Challenge: to get 1 hour of Chinese input a day.

Studying seriously becomes so much easier when it becomes a habit. Lemme explain.

What is a habit? And why do we have them?

People like to believe that they have absolute free will over their actions and behaviours. That they are the one master of their destiny. In reality, most of our behaviour is hardwired into our subconscious – we don’t notice, of course, but a lot of what we do is governed, and explicable by reference to these unconscious processes of the brain. An example of this is psychological addictions, such as addiction to drugs such as marijuana that, chemically, have no physically addictive qualities. Specific behaviours develop and strengthen over time. In order to use it to its full potential, we must recognise that the brain is a muscle that must be trained, just like the muscles needed to physically carry out the brain’s messages.

The reason you cannot immediately play a guitar the first time you pick it up is not only because your fingers can’t physically perform the required movements, but also because your brain doesn’t have the capacity to do so yet. Over time, your fingers develop ‘muscle memory’ that allows them to quickly snap from chord to chord. Your brain simultaneously develops the neural connections associated with playing the guitar, without which you would not be able to play.

We can extend this to the question of why people procrastinate. Why do they seem unable to stop themselves? In case you don’t see where I’m going with this, I’ll spell it out for you: they have gotten into the habit of procrastinating and cannot just simply, well, stop. They need to train their subconscious to ignore the temptation, and their conscious mind will follow.

How does this apply to learning Chinese?

We are creatures of habit. If you can commit to doing a bit of Chinese every day for one month (30 days), then this action will become a habit, one that will be much easier to maintain henceforth than if you study only sporadically every few days or weeks.
You won’t even think twice about getting your daily dose of 汉语. It will seem almost automatic, and, in fact, it kind of will be, as this behaviour will be determined by your subconscious as part of your daily ritual rather than as a tedious task you’d rather avoid. Chinese won’t be something you put off. Of course, of equal importance is loving the learning process, but don’t get me started on that –  that’s a post for another time!

Sure, maybe you are busy one day and don’t do your study. Whatever, dude, shit happens. I suggest you make up for it by doing extra the next day, at the very least in the first month. If you regularly skip days, then you are greatly decreasing the effectiveness of the ‘one month challenge’ experiment.

Also, for maximum effectiveness, set yourself a specific daily target. As mentioned, my target was 1 hour of input (reading or listening) per day, every day. I will detail how I went below. Can’t manage an hour? Make it half an hour, or even just 15 minutes; just make sure you do it every day. C’mon, you expect me to believe you don’t have thirty, measly, spare minutes in your day?

You will be surprised at how well you go, and how easy and natural it becomes.
Mark down how much you did for every given day on your phone or on a piece of paper, and maybe a tick if you reached your goal, and a cross if you didn’t.

My One Month Challenge: 1 Hour of Input a Day

I wanted to start with a modest goal for my first challenge. I think this is a good way to go, because you don’t want to be overwhelmed from the get-go and give up after a few days. Do as much, or as little, as you can manage. If reaching your daily goal seems like a chore, consider reducing it.

In fact, there is something to be said for easing gradually into the habit. Maybe start with 20 minutes a day for the first month, then 40 minutes the next, then an hour the one after that. If you are too ambitious, you will likely burn out quickly and lose motivation. It’s easy to get super excited a do 2 hours on the first day and think, “Shit, I’m going so well!”, but keeping it up for the whole month is where the heart of the challenge lies, and, unfortunately, that’s most likely the only way it’s going to work.

So, how did I go, you ask?

Well, as I said, I was aiming for 1 hour a day on average for the entire month, so, 30 hours in total. I took down the amount of time I spent listening using the ‘Notes’ app on my phone, but I’m going to also include the time I spent on Anki (I used it nearly every day for the whole month) and Skritter (which I got into for the last week or so).

Here it is.

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 8.07.37 PM

So, I almost made it to an hour a day of solid listening. That’s not too bad!

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 8.06.19 PM


My Analysis of Results

I can’t really give you guys a bunch of diagrams and numbers without telling you what it means, now can I?

In terms of my listening ability – it has improved immensely. That’s right, my improvement was so significant that I felt the need to both underline and italicise that word. Shit is legit.

I went from having a sketchy understanding of basic Chinese, to having a solid intermediate level understanding. That’s not to say I learnt all of that this month, but I definitely consolidated a lot of new words.

I can now quite comfortably follow ChinesePod’s Intermediate and some Upper Intermediate level conversations, and even TV shows on without too much difficulty. Due to all this input, words and phrases that I’ve heard before, particularly those from dialogues that I listened to multiple (10+) times now spontaneously spring to mind when I need them.

You can see from the week that I used Skritter, I ‘learnt’ 366 characters, in 1759 reviews, in  about 4h45min. Woah, easy tiger. Let me put a disclaimer on that. A lot of those I already knew, and I added for the purpose of review for my upcoming exams. I did create a list of ‘extra’ words that I learnt in that time, however, which amounted to 81 characters.

Still, 81 new characters in a week, I’m happy with that! That’s over 10 a day, and I wasn’t even particularly focussed on learning new characters, I just wanted to try Skritter out, since my University pays my subscription (good deal, huh? Can’t beat free…).

I can’t wait to use Skritter when I’m in China – I think I could realistically step it up to 20-30 characters a day. I have a visual memory, and find learning characters, as well as remembering tones, quite easy. Any thoughts, anyone?

What is great about Skritter is that you can test yourself on tones, character writings, and recognition of characters, which you can mix and match as you go. It is surprisingly addictive. I found, however, that if I got a character wrong, and did nothing actively about it, I would get it wrong again and again. My solution (credit goes to Hacking Chinese for this one): write the character you get wrong out by hand, on paper, once or twice. I am too lazy to do this on the spot, plus I was usually using Skritter on the train and so this wasn’t practical. What I did was I ‘starred’ these characters inside the app, and then reviewed them later.

I used Anki most days, when I could be bothered (hey, language learning is supposed to be fun!) for a total of 4h35min.

What makes sense about Anki, is that it is essentially efficient input. What I mean by this is that you only review cards (mine are all sentences) that you, yourself, added to Anki. Therefore, you are reviewing sentences that have words or structures you need reviewing, making this pretty much the ultimate input machine.

I will probably write a whole post on Anki, at some stage. If this interests you, leave a comment or shoot me an email to convince me 😉

So, as you can see, I made my goal! 26h40 + 4h45 + 4h35 = 36 hours, unless my maths is off (this is likely, haha). Boo yah!

What now?

Get into it! I hope I’ve inspired you to give one month challenges a try.

I think they have the potential to be enormously beneficial for anything in your life – personally, I plan to use them in other non-language related endeavours. Also, in my one month holidays coming up I’m also playing to have another Chinese challenge!

Other ideas include doing 30 minutes exercise a day, eating vegetables every day, being nice to your parents every day – the list goes on!

Author: Dan

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  1. Top effort! Really interesting idea too, with the one month challenge thing.
    Maybe I’ll give it a shot!

    I think to really learn a language properly, one needs to work on it daily. Even just a little bit per day, it all helps. In my experience, a small amount per day is vastly more efficient than the same amount in a single sitting, say once per week. Anyone have a similar experience?

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  2. I found your blog thanks to the pingback to my article and I just want to say that your blog looks awesome, I will definitely share with my readers. Keep up the good work!

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    • Cheers Olle! I’m a big fan of your blog! Your ‘sensible character learning’ concept is seriously awesome – I honestly think it increases the effectiveness tenfold of passive or semi-passive activities like Skritter or Anki!
      I’m still working my way through your posts, and learning a lot along the way.

      Thanks for the offer of sharing my blog around, that would be great! I’d love to get my ideas out there into the language learning community! Keep up the good work! 🙂

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  3. Found your blog when you submitted it to Polyglot Link (I’m the founder).

    Amazing blog here! The post itself is amazing too. Incredibly inspiring. My Chinese learning has been extremely slow lately. This gave me some inspiration. Keep it up!

    Niel (aka Confused Laowai)

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    • Wow, Niel! Thanks for checking out my blog! I’m honoured that you found it interesting and motivated you! Are you still in Taiwan? How’s that going? I remember you saying you were with your girlfriend – is that a barrier to learning Chinese/making friends over there at all?

      I actually found the Polyglot Link from your blog through the button you have in your sidebar – how do I get one of those on my blog? 🙂

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      • Yep, still in Taiwan. It’s going great still. Teaching English is not the greatest job, but it allows me to stay in the country, have some fun and work on my side-projects.

        Having a girlfriend does solve some immediate social needs, yes. So I’m not that motivated to make new friends. But learning Chinese, no that’s not a barrier. All the responsibility lies with me 🙂

        Hmm. I remember having a link to those buttons somewhere. You can just save the image on my blog if you like. If you want a different size, I can organize it!

        Good luck with the learning!

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        • Sweet! Are you able to make enough to live off teaching English?

          Having a girlfriend definitely reduces the ‘need factor’ of making new friends – but I meant more that it might disrupt your immersive environment, as I assume you guys speak English together.

          True, I’ll have a look!
          Good luck for the rest of your time in Taiwan, man! Keep up with the posting, I’m really interested to hear more about your experiences.

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          • Hey Dan,

            oh yeah definitely. No doubt about that. But personally I don’t account personal time at home speaking English towards an immersive environment. If I had a Chinese girlfriend back home in South Africa, then that would not be seen as immersive environment.

            For me an immersive environment is public language, well in terms of the country.

            Semantics aside, yes, we do speak English to each other, but this is not something that should impact my immersion, because it lays the blame on something that was normal before coming here. If one is really motivated, then the time spent speaking English with each other should not have an impact.

            As I mentioned above, responsibility still lies with yourself. Sure, I have a girlfriend where we speak English all the time, but this shouldn’t impact my learning.

            I hope I’m getting my point across. Hehe. Basically, blaming my girlfriend for breaking my immersive environment would be short-sighted and unfair on my part. 🙂

            Thanks for the good wishes. I really need to post more. Have been really slow with posting this year! Been too busy working and doing web development!

          • Haha, no I’m definitely not asking you to blame your girlfriend for time spent not speaking Chinese! I think you’d be sleeping on the couch after that!

            Have you seen John Pasden’s post on how he used to talk to security guards and people like that, i.e. people who had nothing better to do? Maybe you guys could both go and do that together!

            I must say that (and although this is out of your control) full immersion really does accelerate the learning process. I have lots of friends (including my little brother) who have gone on exchange and lived with host families for periods as short as 5 months and have come back completely fluent. This is due to the ‘need’ factor, but also due to the fact that prolonged exposure to a language really helps your brain come to grips with it. Once you start dreaming in the language, that’s when you’re on the right track.

            Yeah, I was checking our HanziCraft the other night! Seriously cool dude! Might have to consider buying it when I’m not broke 😉
            Definitely a time saver for creating mnemonics/properly understanding characters.

          • Haha. Yes, indeed.

            As I mentioned in one of my posts on my blog, immersion to me can’t just magically make you amazingly fluent. I think that’s a fallacy. The only thing that really improved by being in an immersive environment with no agency on my part was my listening. That does add quite a lot of input yes, but I still think an immersive environment is an amazing (easy!) resource, but like anything in life you can choose to use it or not. Lots of people fail to learn languages in an immersive environment because they just don’t care, or are just plain lazy. This is has nothing to do with the immersive environment.

            Glad you enjoy HanziCraft! It’s my favourite pet Chinese project. 🙂

  4. Great post Dan! It reminded me of the TED Talk “30-day challenge.” I need to get back to my Chinese, so I’ll try a “30-minutes-a-day of Chinese” challenge!

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      • Yep, check it out man!

        As far as my Korean is concerned, it’s going pretty good! At the stage I am, it’s all about speaking as much as possible; in retrospect, though, I’d say I have exceeded my goals in regards to fluency so I’m happy with that, but as stated I have left Chinese in the dust bin so it’s time to shake it up!

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        • Sweet, how long have you been over there, and how long do you have left? That is so good that you’ve surpassed your goals! Can’t get much better than that. Hopefully I’ll be able to say the same thing when I get back from China! You speak Japanese too, right?

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  5. this is inspired challenge, i really interesting on this language
    very important language jasa penerjemah

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  6. Great article. I really appreciate a good 30-day challenge to develop a good habit. I typically see these kinds of tips on work out challenges and never thought to apply the same concept to something else! This may be a good tactic for

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